Image Michelangelo Prophet Jeremiah detail - the figure of Zion lamenting
Daughter Zion as seen from the Renaissance

Reviewing: David R. Slavitt. The Book of Lamentations: A Meditation and Translation Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001.

In this short, painfully beautiful and humane volume, David R. Slavitt shares both his remarkable translation of the book of Lamentations (the Megillat Eichah), and his meditation on the historical background of that book, both before and after its composition. For the history of Israel after the destruction of the First Temple, up to and including the present day, appears here also as background to the reading of the Lamentations, certainly as background to the commemoration on the Tisha b’Av of “every terrible thing that happens in this world.” (6)

Slavitt’s meditation confronts us with verse upon verse of lucid reflection on the history of the ancient world – the policies of the Babylonians, the fate of Jehoiachin and Zedekiah, the contingency of royal decrees, perhaps also the ways faith in God becomes part of the background for disaster. For he notes this of Zedekiah: “In a sense he deserved what he got. There is nothing surprising about what happened, except that we had a covenant with God, in whom we believed.” (14) And of the zealots who defended the Second Temple: “It could be argued that the Jews so much believed in heaven and the power of the Temple that they forgot for the moment the earth they walked or the power of armies. It was for this theological error – or call it an act of utter folly and mad pride – that the Temple was destroyed.” (28-9) And of the 380,567 Jews in Warsaw on Tisha b’Av, 1942, the beginning of the deportation: “We cannot bring those people back. Or their world. Or their faith. And there are some who wouldn’t want to. That faith – that we are the Chosen People – they see as the gentile’s warrant for our persecution.” (55)

Slavitt’s meditation on the story of the people whose text is the Megillat Eichah is compelling, but the translation of Lamentations itself is equally remarkable. Slavitt has sought to bring out in English the acrostic feature of the text, which he presents as

… not merely embellishment but a serious assertion that the language itself is speaking, that the speech is inspired, and that there is, beyond all the disaster and pain the book recounts, an intricacy and an orderly coherence the poetry affirms in a gesture that is encouraging and marvelous. The texture of the poetry is what lets us know that, somehow, the catastrophe is not total.” (xiii-xiv)

Some relentlessly optimistic Bible readers may regret the “roving, reordering, and adjusting” Slavitt has worked on the text of Lamentations to preserve “this extraordinary dance of letters and words” (xiv). In particular, the oddly triumphant declaration of 3:22-24, which is a perennial candidate for some people’s “favorite Bible verse,” reads, in Slavitt’s translation:

How can the steadfast love of the Lord come to an end? How can the new day break and his endless mercies fail? Hope, I shall somehow cling to and remember how to say, “The Lord is my portion.”

I do not join those people. For me, the ambiguity of Slavitt’s 3:22 articulates pitch-perfectly the voice of honest faith, that refuses both to accept premature alternative facts – the silver linings, the blessings in disguise – and to forswear its stubborn loyalty to God, for the sake of its fidelity to its experience of reality. The cloud is dense, the disguise is disaster, but the steadfast love, that happened, too. Slavitt’s work, it seems to me, manages to respond to Adorno’s indictment of the barbarity of poetry after Auschwitz, with poetry composed long before Auschwitz: prophetic poetry, which laments the brokenness of its world, no less our world, whose very brokenness insists that it was meant to hold a place for God.